Could There Be War In The Arctic?

Big war in the Arctic: How could it happen? Mikhail Khodarenok, The fight for the resource-rich region now involves not just the Arctic Ocean countries –the US, Russia, Canada, Norway, and Denmark– but powers from other regions as well, such as, for instance, China. Polar research is no longer a purely scientific endeavor, the focus has now shifted towards economic aspects, which in turn has led to a serious political debate between the Arctic states. Now Russia is returning to the Arctic and is using new technological solutions to stake its claim. The Russian Armed Forces are rapidly increasing their military potential and presence in the region. Moscow has the largest ice-breaker fleet in the world. It is building military and navy bases as well as airfields in the region. It is also improving its air support systems and anti-aircraft protection, and is upgrading its radars. But other Arctic states are doing the same. This begs the question whether conflicting interests in the region could lead to a full-scale war.   Indeed, there are all kinds of disagreements and discord between the Arctic states at this point. And some of them are potentially dangerous. The second important problem in the Arctic is the debate about states’ authorities over the Northeast Passage (NEP). The shipping route is becoming increasingly accessible to commercial vessels because of melting ice. Lately, the US has been getting more vocal about restricting Russia’s presence and promoting the idea of turning the NEP (called the Northern Sea Route in Russia), into an international route, as opposed to part of the Russian national transport infrastructure. The US also seeks to increase its activity in the Arctic. One of the strategies used by the Americans is deploying a significant number of US Coast Guard units in the region. Western experts claim that Russia’s position on the NEP/Northern Sea Route is not always convincing, as allegedly it violates international maritime law to some degree and goes against the principle of the peaceful use of the seas and oceans. Moscow argues that Russia has authority over the NEP which passes through its exclusive economic zone and any vessels willing to use this route have to ask for its permission.    This difference could potentially cause serious incidents. Let’s imagine a scenario where, for example, US Navy vessels are going through the NEP claiming that they are using the route based on the freedom of the seas principle. This doctrine allows for free passage through territorial waters if this section is part of an international maritime trade route. But in reality this often causes all kinds of incidents – clashes, attempts to force vessels out, etc. There are also military issues in the Arctic. In the mid-1990s, Russia developed the Northern Strategic Bastion concept, which defined special measures for maintaining combat survivability of strategic missile submarines. The idea was to create secure zones around ballistic missile-armed submarines, with air and sea support, as well as stationary underwater illumination systems.   If that doctrine had been implemented, it would’ve been challenged by the US and serious pressure from them would have been expected. By the way, nuclear ballistic missile-carrying submarines are usually deployed in neutral waters. This would’ve been a cause for great concern in the US. To analyze a potential large-scale war in the Arctic, we have to bear in mind one important factor – any conflict between the existing players in the region poses a risk of turning into a nuclear war.   NATO is clearly interested in the Arctic – in the broadest sense. So, on the one side of the scale we have the US, Norway, Canada, Greenland, and Denmark. On the other side, there is Russia. China now also joins the club, since it has been actively making its way into the Arctic region recently. China is seeking to get a foothold in the Arctic, so that it can one day use the northern routes for commercial shipping – if the climate allows. In the geopolitical sense, any kind of situation that may unfold in the Arctic Ocean will in general be similar to what we see today in the Persian Gulf or around the [disputed] Spratly Islands in the South China Sea. However, it should be noted that all Arctic region players are nuclear powers with major military capabilities or are members of military alliances – it means that the whole range of deterrence mechanisms would come into play, should anything happen. 

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